I grew up in a middle-class family about 10 minutes from CleanSlate’s Wilkes-Barre center. Growing up, my neighborhood seemed like the perfect suburban community. My parents didn’t lock their doors and loved their country and neighbors. The only reference to drug education we had was Nancy Reagan’s, “Just Say No” campaign and most people in my community thought that if people did just that, the drug problem would cease.
My parents and my friend’s parents only knew about heroin from the news reports they’d seen in the sixties, saying that their rock idols had died from overdoses. Little did they think there could be a heroin problem in their own community. My home of Northeast Pennsylvania, once known as “a valley with a heart,“ had in just a few years become nicknamed “a valley with a habit“ by local media. I don’t think anyone at the time could imagine how true that statement would become.
By the time the local government and medical community admitted that heroin was a problem, years had passed and resources were scarce. I was in college when I started using. It was the nineties, so I listened to bands like Nirvana, Jane’s Addiction and Alice in Chains, watched movies like “Trainspotting” and “The Basketball Diaries,” and in an attempt to be well-read, frequented books by Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. I thought of myself as a free thinker who did not conform to societal norms. Heroin to me was fascinating and taboo and, at the time, I incorrectly equated it with being artistic and creative.
I was around 18 years old when I started using heroin. At the time, I had no idea how drug use would affect my future. After more than 30 treatment episodes, including stays in halfway and recovery houses, countless 12-step meetings, multiple recovery books, trying medications and detox – you name it, I tried it – I ended up homeless in Philadelphia with track marks up both sides of my neck. My living quarters consisted of an abandoned building with no plumbing where rats and roaches were my roommates.
Along the way I had episodes of endocarditis, countless blood infections, frostbite, abscesses and even got stabbed, shot at and robbed. I would not say I was suicidal, but I had thought to myself that if I happened to die, that was fine with me. I figured it came with the territory and the lifestyle I had chosen. After reading countless obituaries of friends and acquaintances who had overdosed, how could I think that I was immune? At my lowest point, I remember taking a Sharpie and writing my mom’s name and phone number inside my winter coat in the hopes that if I died, the coroner would call her to claim my body.
I can’t say exactly what led me to recovery. It was not a near-death experience or an “I saw the light” moment. Throughout my 13 years of using, I utilized local harm reduction services. This was my only contact with anyone who could be considered healthy in any way. They did not judge me, and the people who worked and volunteered with these services were a big reason I kept going back.
Today in my work at CleanSlate, I am a firm believer in the positive results of harm reduction services. Harm reduction refers to services that help people who use drugs and their communities by recognizing that some people are not willing or able to abstain completely from use. Instead of punishing these people or withholding assistance, harm reduction works to improve health, save lives and strengthen communities by ensuring access to services such as needle exchange programs, overdose prevention sites, medication-assisted treatment, housing assistance and more. Through my own personal experience, I know harm reduction services reduce disease, keep people engaged and change lives. Today I feel grateful for the opportunity to help others who face the barriers that I once faced. I am a person in long-term recovery.
I often think of the people I encountered while I was using, who also suffered from substance use disorder and did not make it. This loss inspires me try to fight against substance use disorder and make sure people are able to access treatment. My life has changed remarkably thanks to harm reduction services, and I truly don’t think I’d be here if it were not for the people working in medication-assisted treatment and harm reduction centers. These people gave me light on my darkest days and I hope that, through my work with CleanSlate, I am able to do the same for someone else. We still have a long way to go when it comes to overcoming stigma and educating people on the benefits of medication-assisted treatment, but I am hopeful we are moving in the right direction and grateful that I can now play a small part in doing just that.